President Obama must move forward with a redefined American attitude toward the Middle East before any solutions can be reached, agreed the panel of foreign relations experts during Wednesday's program, "Obama's Challenges in the Muslim World."
Hosted by the Prince Alwaleed Bin-Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, the panel included John Esposito, a Georgetown professor of Islamic Studies; Hisham Melham, the first journalist to interview Obama, as president; Aaron Miller, author of "The Much Too Promised Land," and Paula Newberg, director of Georgetown's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. The event, moderated by John Voll, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, was held at the Georgetown University Conference Center.
Most of the panelists spoke about the need for democratization in the Middle East. According to Melham, former President George W. Bush was right when he said that America had turned its back on the Muslim world for 60 years while the governments violated the rights of their own people. The panelists agreed that Obama should promote liberal ideals and government policies within the authoritative governments of the Middle East.
"There has to be much more pressure and incentive on our authoritarian allies to open and liberalize, to build strong civil societies even as we may determine in the short term we have to support them," Esposito said.
However, according to Esposito, we can only move forward by defining the correct audience, which should be the people of the Middle East. He cited statistics from a recent Gallup poll in which 7 percent of people in 35 Muslim countries in the Middle East were identified as "potential radicals" because they believed that the Sept. 11 attacks were justified. Esposito added that many Middle Eastern people admire certain aspects of the U.S., such as technology, economic development, education and self-determination, but they dislike American foreign policy and fear intervention or invasion.
Other panelists also discussed how Americans have incorrectly characterized the target of the U.S. wars in the Middle East. Melham said that the "War on Terror" is a war on a tactic, not on a specific group of people. He also pointed out that it was problematic to group multiple terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah together.
"This distinction is extremely important analytically and politically, and I think that is why the new president needs to redefine the war on terrorism," Melham said.
Newberg also voiced her opinions on this issue, making the distinction between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and between Afghanistan and Pakistan. She also pointed out that they are all connected and their relationship continues to change.
While the panelists all offered their viewpoints on how Obama should deal with the challenges that he faces in the Middle East, Miller cited the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the core of the regional instability. He asserted that while there is no perfectly fair way out of the conflict, there is a solution, which can only be reached through negotiation and compromise. Miller developed 10 suggestions for Obama, including looking to the past, especially former President John F. Kennedy. "See the world the way it is, Mr. President, not only the way you want it to be," Miller said.